As core Relational Leadership practices, Story and Narrative Leadership are foundational to individual transformation, team transformation, and the transformation of the culture of healthcare. This is the third of our Transformational Power of Story series, which explores the relational power of stories to create connection. Through written and video narratives, members of the Relational Leadership community model the practice of Narrative Leadership.
In a 2021 report to the provost at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, faculty member Josh Hinson described the impact that the Relational Leadership Institute has had on his life, within the context of recent events in the UNC community. He shared his story again at the Relational Leadership Institute to model for participants the practice of Narrative Leadership. An edited version of what he shared is included below.
All too often in professional settings, we share the story of our CV — academic achievement and professional role. But there are parts of my story that I don’t always bring into work, like the day after my 29th birthday.
On that day, I was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, in the bedroom of the small, ramshackle 1920s farmhouse that I rented in an isolated hilltop in Stokes County. I remember it was the middle of the day, a weekday. I had come home early from my job at the Stokes County Department of Social Services, where I worked as a case manager for elderly and disabled adults, many of whom — like me — lived in small, decaying, isolated houses in one of North Carolina’s more rural counties. I came home early because I couldn’t stop crying. On my 29th birthday, I had come to the realization that I was alone. Completely alone. That there was a void in my heart, in my soul, that no one was willing or able to fill. Perhaps no human being could possibly fill it. Maybe I didn’t deserve to have that void filled. The pain of that void, and the pain of the realization that the emptiness might never go away, was unbearable. I did, however, have my grandfather’s shotgun. So, there was one way out. Here in this quiet countryside, no one would hear a thing.
In 2001, Stokes County had the highest per capita suicide rate in North Carolina. I was about to become another data point in that statistic.
Fortunately, I knew what to do. I called a mental health provider and scheduled an evaluation with a psychiatrist. I had insurance and could be seen within 24 hours. I called a co-worker, who spent the afternoon sitting with me next to the Dan River, listening. I had a lifelong, and multi-generational, history of depression, but was only now being prescribed antidepressants for the first time. Within a week I had reconnected with my therapist, and within a month of taking a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, I could feel a veil being lifted. I began to imagine that this was how “normal” people felt; I had never felt this way before. And so began my journey to becoming a licensed clinical social worker. A therapist. An advocate. A lifeline for others.
But that feeling of being isolated, of being alone, was not and is not unique to me. In fact, I think that we are experiencing that as a community here and now at the University of North Carolina.
We are in the middle of a very real crisis point at UNC, because when we witness, fail to prevent, or perhaps even perpetrate harm on behalf of the systems we are part of — contradicting our deeply held moral beliefs and expectations — we suffer from moral injury. The athletic scandals; failure to respond to homophobic and anti-transgender legislation; whether or not to remove a confederate statue, a symbol of white supremacy on our campus; and the decisions around tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones. All of these events have impacted our campus deeply. As a result, I’ve been feeling a very real moral injury, especially in response to our university’s treatment of Nikole Hannah-Jones.
As we enter this Relational Leadership learning space, as we continue to define the values of this community, we must acknowledge that many of our friends, and our colleagues — including coworkers and students, past and present — are hurting. People of color that I have talked with are especially hurting, because the message they have perceived or even directly received is: You are here because we let you be here. And you can be replaced. Don’t get too comfortable.
Carolina is hurting.
And I don’t mean that the institution is hurting or that its reputation is tarnished. Carolina is its students. Carolina is the people who work here, the people who teach, the people who conduct research, and the people who provide care. We are better than these recent actions, and I firmly choose to remain a part of this community, to help the UNC community become a place where everyone feels safe, welcomed, and valued. Relational Leadership here at Carolina and the Relational Leadership Institute are founded on the primacy of psychological safety: the basic human need to connect and belong, to feel safe bringing our whole selves to the teams and communities we are part of, and to be accepted for who we are. We are not alone, and we can and must support each other when we are hurting and when we feel alone in our pain.
That is what brings me here today.
That is what keeps me invested in Relational Leadership at Carolina.
Josh Hinson, MSW, LCSW, is the director of Relational Leadership @ Carolina, an interprofessional, intergenerational learning collaborative for leadership development within the Office of Interprofessional Education and Practice (OIPEP) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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Story and Narrative Leadership are foundational to individual and team transformation. In the latest in an inspiring series from our Relational Leadership community, Josh Hinson shares his story.